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Review: The Descent

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The new UK horror film from Neil Marshall, the creator of Dog Soldiers (2002), is a dark and chilling film called The Descent.

The plot is simple: six women meet to go on their annual extreme sports weekend. Potholing/spelunking is selected. While squeezing through tunnels a cave-in occurs that traps them in the unknown system. They have to negotiate their way out, and fend off a race of blind albino mutated humans, who move super fast, and eat the flesh of any living creature.

Initially the tension simmers slowly by relying on the rivalries and problems between the characters combined with the natural claustrophobia of the caves and the physical problems facing the women. Once the gollum-like creatures make an appearance the action rachets ups and it’s one scare after another.

Neil Marshall is at the top of his game on this film. It’s a superb atmospheric horror/thriller film, and easily one of the best of its type I’ve seen in a number of years. It’s also fantastic to see an all-woman cast. Inevitably, with six people on-screen it’s difficult to establish any in-depth characterisation, and this is the only weak spot in the film. The movie is meant to be powered by tensions between two characters: Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) and Juno (Natalie Jackson Mendoza). Sarah’s husband and child died in a car crash a year earlier (the establishing scenes in the film), and Juno is a super-competitive woman whose attempts to help Sarah get over her trauma might be fuelled by guilt as much as friendship.

Mendoza is a charismatic actor who puts in a stellar performance; whenever she is on-screen she dominates the scene. Juno is the only one who keeps the group together initially, and who risks herself to get them back to safety. (Some of this is because it’s her fault they are stuck in an unknown cave system in the first place.) But, it add complexity and interest to her character. Sarah, unfortunately, because of her trauma, is weaker and more insipid at the beginning. This changes dramatically in the latter half of the film when Sarah is warped into a Kali-like avenger who becomes a single-minded survivor, capable of any act, in order to beat off the attackers. MacDonald displays an incredible performance at this point in the film, but for me the shift of interest to her came a little too late.

This is a rather picky observation to make, as otherwise it’s a fantastic, creepy, and engaging horror film that is sharply directed and uniformly well-acted. Even though the main action is meant to occur in the Appalachians in the USA, the exteriors were shot in Scotland, and all the cave scenes were done on a set in Pinewood Studios in the UK. This is astonishing when you watch the movie because other than one or two creaky matting moments, it’s impossible to tell. Marshall has proven himself as an innovative and inventive director who knows the horror genre intimately.

Bad luck to the US makers of The Cave, which features a similar plot and is also due out this year. Marshall’s excellent gem of a film will be a hard act to follow.

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About Maura McHugh